Ant Financial completed a small-scale commercial launch of a contactless payment system using facial recognition to verify users, a little over two years after first unveiling the technology.
The company deployed the technology in self-service terminals at a new health-focused restaurant launched by KFC in Hangzhou, China. Named Smile to Pay, the service enables users of Ant Financial’s Alipay mobile wallet service to pay for meals by scanning their facial features.
Jack Ma, CEO of Ant Financial parent Alibaba Group, first unveiled the technology in early 2015. During the Mobile World Congress Shanghai event later in the year, Jason Lu, then VP with Alipay, predicted such biometric authentication would make traditional passwords redundant within three years.
The first deployment of Smile to Pay shows there is still some way to go before Ant Financial is ready to fully trust facial recognition. While the system uses a 3D camera to detect “shadows and other features” only found in real people to prevent fraudulent use involving photographs, it still requires Alipay customers to enter their phone number as an additional security measure.
Jidong Chen, Ant Financial’s director of biometric identification technology, said the company “always placed security at the core of this”, despite pushing to deliver a system providing “convenience for users like never before”.
It takes between one second and two seconds to verify facial features. Ant Financial stated Alipay will cover any losses arising from the theft of a customer’s Smile to Pay account.
Room to grow
Ant Financial’s choice of retail partner could prove as important as the technology itself. KFC restaurants in China are operated by fast food chain Yum China, which Reuters reported runs more than 7,685 outlets in the country, providing plenty of room for the finance company to expand.
A Yum China company representative told Reuters the facial recognition system is part of a broader push to attract younger customers.
While Ant Financial said the service is the first of its kind, CNET noted rivals including Samsung, MasterCard and PayPal have trialled facial recognition on their payment services, and Apple may include a similar feature in its tenth anniversary iPhone, which is likely to be unveiled at an event on 12 September.